2 Thessalonians 3. 6 – 13
Luke 21. 5 – 19
Fr Kenneth Crawford
Many years ago, there was a magnificent TV programme entitled The Genius of British Art. John Snow was commenting on the invaluable history we have of art works depicting the realities of war. Some of the superb paintings we saw were censored originally because the censorship boffins thought they spoke too critically of the reality of war—the first World War, of course—and would be offensive to the then viewing public.
None of these paintings was offensive in the slightest; each of them depicted graphically the courage, the bravery, the commitment, and the resilience of those who were on the sea, in the trenches, and in the air. Each of the paintings was a brilliant canvas of fear, pain, suffering, anxiety, all the emotions were present in the sombre, reflective colours.
Art on canvas is not the only medium for conveying the reality of war. Some of the world’s most outstanding art is from poets who have reflected in profound verbal imagery the cost of war and the wiping out of those whose lives were conscripted into battle: Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, who wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields, from which the poppy tradition grew, A. E. Houseman, born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, and famous for his poetic output, and John Gillespie Magee who wrote the magificent poem High Flight. There were many who portrayed the realities of war in their profound words.
Words that some of you might not know were written in wartime by John Oxenham. These words are engraved on a stone tablet and mounted in rock in Belgium. They are magnificent words which say this:
Tread softly, here! Go reverently and slow!
You, let your soul go down upon its knees.
And with bowed head and heart abased, strive hard
To grasp the future gain in this sore loss!
For not one foot of this dank sod but drank
Its surfeit of the blood of gallant men
Who, for their faith, their hope–-for life and liberty
Here made the sacrifice, here gave their lives.
And gave right willingly–-for you and me.
More recently, in 2009, a former student from Pershore High School in Worcestershire, Nathan John, who attended the Pershore Baptist Church, wrote these words in memory of those who died in warfare. It is entitled simply, Remember.
In a chair by the window sits an old man,
Deformed by his time in the war.
And now, the first time in many a year
He will talk about that which he saw.
He had command of the Front line in France,
And met Lord Kitchener, too.
He tells how the very lights gloriously danced,
How his friends to their end they did woo.
He entered the war a naïve cobbler’s son,
Believing the war was from God.
Here he is now, the Devil’s work done,
Leaving many on the battlefield sod.
He made many a friend, both Tommy and Bosche;
They swapped things like books, which he’s read.
There was once a time when the fighting was stopped;
Next day two friends were shot dead.
With a tear in his eye he painfully tells
Of his wife and two sons, all long gone.
For although none of them fought out in the line
The Bosche got them with a bomb.
So, as you stand here on the plain where he fought,
The dent made by Bosche for to mend,
Remember him now, and all of his sort,
To the end,
To the end,
To the end.
Very sadly, Nathan—training to be a Baptist minister—died in his sleep from medical complications at the age of 21.
The poignancy of this excellent modern poem comes out in the lines about the old man making friends with Tommy and Bosche, swapping things such as books, the fighting stopping and then two friends—presumably those he’d made from the enemy lines—shot dead. In the first World War, there was a Christmas truce where, for 24 hours, both sides put up their weapons and interacted. They played ball games, chatted, had coffee together and generally enjoyed some real camaraderie. The commanders heard of this and ordered them back to war. This truce, wonderful in itself, became infamous because those who had become friendly across the trenches now found themselves at each other’s mercy and many new friends died at each other’s hands. There is a David Unwin animated film called War Game, based on this very incident.
No matter how we view war, there can never be a justification for it in terms of human cost. We might justify it in terms of protection against enemy attack, but in personal terms the loss can never be justified.
The film Atonement, based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same title, has a superb sequence, amongst many, which deals with people’s feelings in war. At one point, the principal male character is walking along a beach strewn with defunct tanks and various other items of war debris. Soldiers are lying everywhere, fires are still burning on the beach, there is general mayhem in the aftermath of battle. The whole scene is grey.
As the camera moves along the beachfront, the music soundtrack blends two tunes together, the soundtrack and something else. Gradually, as the camera reaches a bandstand with soldiers sitting in it, the less identifiable tune predominates and becomes recognisable: it is the hymn tune ‘Repton’ and the words the soldiers are singing are Dear Lord and Father of mankind, / forgive our foolish ways. / Reclothe us in our rightful mind, / in purer lives thy service find, / in deeper reverence praise. A most moving and soul-stirring scene of cinematic artistry, revealing the futility of war.
With all this in mind, we might well ask about the perspective we should have on this consummate waste of human life. We are here today, remembering those who have died so that we might have freedom. The difficulty, however, is that we don’t have that freedom for which they fought. Still there are wars in the world and still people are coming home shot to bits, mentally and physically.
If the futility of war and human death still haunt us, where might we turn to find a lasting peace and a guarantee of that peace? I believe that, in all the occasions on which we remember our war dead, there is one whom we never put consciously into the context of a saving act in death. If we recall the acts of Good Friday and Easter Day, we remember Christ’s gift of himself that we might be free.
This freedom isn’t from bullets, cannons, tanks, planes, ships, and the imposition of one cultural idiom upon another. It’s the freedom Christ has bought for us with the price of his own blood so that we might be free in this life from the shackles of the human condition and ultimately, in faith, enjoy eternity in his presence. Whilst we remember with gratitude the gift of those who died for our freedom, we remember that those who gave their lives were able to bring freedom only for a while. War continues to haunt us. I’ll never forget the tragedy of Remembrance Sunday, 2002 —the day on which Tony Blair sent 15,000 troops from England to begin war in Iraq. I believe that act made an utter mockery of Remembrance.
Perhaps on this day we’ll remember our Lord Jesus Christ who has bought freedom for us—not only in this life, but for the age to come. If we’re willing to accept that gift, bought with the price of Christ’s own blood, there is a freedom beyond the understanding of this world where warfare and disruption can never touch us.
As we sang Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith’s opening hymn this morning, I was struck by the absolute relevance of the final verse to everything I’ve just said, and want to end with that verse:
From earth’s long tale of suffering here below
We pray the fragile flower of peace may grow,
Till cloud and darkness vanish from our skies
To see the Sun of Righteousness arise.
When night is past and peace shall banish pain,
All shall be well, in God’s eternal reign.
God bless you as you reflect upon the sacrifice of Christ and honour him as the true source of freedom and peace.